Histories of the Postsecular: An Interview with Maxwell Kennel

This interview is about Maxwell Kennel’s new book Postsecular History: Political Theology and the Politics of Time, published by Palgrave Macmillan in November 2021. In the exchanges below, coordinating editor of Anabaptist Historians Joel Nofziger asks how the book stands in relation to Anabaptist history and political theology, and questions how the book relates to the history of memory and the construction of national identity.

Postsecular History advances a critique of certain ways of dividing up time and history. Drawing from the field of political theology, it questions how theological and political ideas combine to form powerful legitimation strategies; and drawing from thinkers who approach the politics of time, it is concerned with how temporal and historical terms are periodized – especially how historical categories of ancient, medieval, and modern, and temporal categories of past, present, and future, are used in value-laden ways.

Joel Horst Nofziger: How did you become concerned with the ways that theopolitical thought creates temporality and historical periods?

Maxwell Kennel: I think that whether we are talking about reading and writing or teaching and research, scholarly activity is always influenced by biography, circumstance, and experience. The construction of historical periods and the configuration of time became important issues for me during my graduate studies, which is a time when the unstructured temporality of ‘study’ tends to replace more common ways of living in time (like the 9:00-5:00 schedule of the work-week).

As I managed my time and mediated between my academic work, family life, and other labor, I noticed that the terms and images I was receiving and using were simultaneously theological and political. One place where this realization came through most clearly was in the factory I worked in during the year between my masters and doctoral degrees. I wrote a personal essay on these experiences called “Factory Time,” which has recently been published in Hamilton Arts & Letters, and I think that it is a good introduction to the underlying concerns and problems that prompted my more abstract inquiries in Postsecular History.

JHN: Postsecular History is a theopolitical text. How do you understand political theology as a field?

MK: I think that, at its best, political theology should be a paradigm or lens through which to understand how concepts that appear to be secular often have very religious histories and structures.

For me, the field of political theology is far more diverse than one might gather from the anthologies that have been published in the past few years by Blackwell and T&T Clark. The term ‘political theology’ need not solely refer to the theological use of political analysis, and there are many scholars who work in political theology without doing so for the benefit of a particular religious tradition. By contrast with approaches that prioritize theology, I feel drawn toward the more pluralistic way of thinking about political theology that I see in the Political Theology Network, which presents its work as a rigorous form of interdisciplinary inquiry that is critical of power and oriented toward justice.

That said, political theology struggles to reckon with the traumatic memory and reception of its founding figures; the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt being the most salient example. Schmitt’s insight was that many modern state concepts are really secularized theological concepts, and the field of political theology has used this narrative of partial secularization to analyze a variety of social and cultural phenomena. But I worry about how enmity, competition, and violent forms of conceptual displacement remain within the discourse on political theology. In Postsecular History I critique the ways that political theology can be taken in by the desire for religion (especially Christianity) to remain in a relationship of competition or enmity with secularity, such that the identification of religious structures within secular concepts would represent another victory for religion over some caricatured image of secularism. In my dissertation I critique an exemplary expression of this pattern in John Milbank’s work, which first constructs an enemy called ‘secularism’ and then uses insights from political theology to position Christianity as the solution to the crises we experience in the ‘postsecular’ world. Instead of being beholden to this competitive displacement of secularity by Christianity, I think political theology is well equipped to think beyond dualistic oppositions between secular and religious ways of thinking, and instead theorize the complex mediations and entanglements between competing normative orders that structure our world.

JHN: In the acknowledgments section that opens the book, you note that you have been influenced by Travis Kroeker’s political theology, building on and from his approach which is “neither Catholic nor Protestant, neither Mennonite nor secularist, neither orthodox nor heterodox.” What does the pursuit of this kind of political theology look like to you?

MK: For a variety of reasons, I am fortunate that Travis Kroeker supervised my dissertation and guided me into political theology. Throughout my time at McMaster University between 2016 and 2021 my entire way of thinking was changed by both his seminars and published works. What I appreciate most about Travis’s work is his critique of possessive desire, and my appreciation for this way of thinking comes through most clearly in Postsecular History when I argue that the prefix ‘post’ cannot adequately fix upon the secular in a way that would allow us to move beyond it.

Travis’s work in Messianic Political Theology and Diaspora Ethics and his booklet Empire Erotics and Messianic Economies of Desire seems to be based on the idea that the desire to possess, control, and dominate things is a key theological problem, and I think it is just as much a problem for political theology as it is for religious studies. But where Travis tends to use Augustinian formulations to name this problem (the libido dominandi of the earthly city), I prefer Hartmut Rosa’s argument for the “uncontrollability [unverfügbarkeit] of the world.” However one puts it, the fact remains that it is not only a matter of ethics whether we are possessive and controlling in our scholarship. It is also a descriptive fact that such forms of possession do not work. One does not need theology or theory to know that the tighter and more anxiously we try to grasp things, the more we lose perspective.

Travis’s approach to political theology evades categorization and makes his work difficult to place in the discourse, but to me that is its benefit. His work inspires me to ask: must we be confined to the distinction between secular and theological approaches to political theology, where theologians confidently assert that we are ‘post-secular’ and secular scholars claim to have a better grasp on their object of study than those who believe in the doctrines they study? This is too simple. For me, political theology stands in a far more unique and generative relation with descriptive and normative approaches to the study of religion because it allows scholars to mediate between proximity and distance from what they study without either the fantasy of value-neutrality or the forcible imposition of normative categories.

Despite its flaws, I see the Anabaptist Mennonite tradition as one that can assist in this kind of critique of possessive desire in ways that have interdisciplinary consequences. Is it possible that a methodology based on the critique of violence could inform the works of scholars across the social sciences and humanities? I think so, and I explore this connection further in the introduction to a special issue of Political Theology that I edited earlier this year.

JHN: In what ways have your choice of topic and methodological approach been shaped by Anabaptist thought?

MK: Very deeply. My Mennonite background and Anabaptist sensibilities motivate my fundamental concern for how violence and other forms of force and coercion inhere in our ways of thinking, speaking, and knowing. This led me to write my dissertation on ontologies of violence in the works of French philosopher Jacques Derrida, Mennonite political theologians, and feminist philosopher of religion Grace M. Jantzen. As I revise my dissertation for publication, I have been reflecting on its relationship with Postsecular History, and I think that underneath the topics and sources of both works is a fundamental concern for the place of peace and justice in a world where the distinction between secularity and religion is inadequate.

In Postsecular History I critique ways of thinking about the category of the postsecular that privilege certain problematic configurations of time and history. I want to reject approaches to the ‘postsecular’ that use the prefix ‘post’ to indicate possession, novelty, freedom, and instrumentality. Rather than possessing the secular so as to move beyond it, and rather than proclaiming a new time after the demise of the secular, and rather than thinking that we can free ourselves from secular or religious histories, and rather than using the prefix ‘post’ as a conceptual instrument to mold the secular into a rejectable image, I argue for less violent ways of thinking about the postsecular that account for the complex mediations and entanglements that the term tends to point toward.

My current postdoctoral project “Critique of Conspiracism” is also underpinned by the same underlying values and questions, specifically concerning how conspiratorial thinking periodizes time and history in theopolitical ways, and how such ways of thinking can lead to violence. It seems to me that conspiracy theories are connected with religions in ways that entangle secularity and religion, and this is nowhere more evident than in the rise of QAnon and its connections with American evangelicalism. Postsecular ways of mediating between religion and secularity are at the heart of conspiratorial thinking, especially if we follow Michael Barkun’s suggestion that conspiracy theories are based on the idea that: “nothing happens by accident, nothing is as it seems, and everything is connected.” My current work focuses on how this formulation serves as a theopolitical way of narrating the relationship between origins and ends, and does so in ways that allow for the justification of violence – for example, the events of January 6th 2021 in the American capitol. I think that the term ‘postsecular’ can helpfully name the confluence of religious and secular ways of thinking within conspiratorial thinking, and my next step in the project is to consider how conspiracy itself might be a secularized theological concept.

JHN: For the purposes of your argument, you settle on a definition of “postsecular” as “the confluence of Christianity, religion, and secularity with critiques of these terms that resist both religious and secular assertions of dominance.” What led you to this understanding?

MK: I conceive of the postsecular as a category that names the confluence of religious, secular, and Christian ways of thinking, but is also inseparable from the normative confrontations and contradictions that arise between these ways of thinking. My argument in Postsecular History is that we are better able to understand how religions and secularities become entangled and mutually critical of each other if we think about the postsecular without inscribing triumphalism into its prefix.

For example, I attempt to think about postsecular entanglements without Christian anxieties that motivate a return to foundations or a desire to assure final ends. Both the image of a return and the invocation of an end are simultaneously theological and political (‘theopolitical’). Messianic returns and teleological ends are theological concepts that also serve as politically usable means of persuasion. By pointing backward and forward in time simultaneously, a ‘return’ knits together tradition and novelty. So too with origins and ends, which are often mediated in persuasive ways by those who call for returns to a golden age or progress toward utopian or apocalyptic futures. All told, I see most ways of periodizing time (past, present, future) and history (ancient, medieval, modern, postmodern) as powerful persuasive techniques that ascribe value to certain terms and not others. Time and history are not given; they are made. What matters is how we engage in that act of making.

JHN: You discuss how “periodization serves as one kind of theopolitical justification narrative that is used within the logic of neoliberalism” and you suggest that “authoritative periodizations assist the neoliberal project in justifying and ordering the world.” The idea that neoliberal periodizations reorder our relationships with the past, present, and future reminds me of two texts on memory.

I am reminded first of Benedict Anderson’s argument in Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1983) that “awareness of being embedded in secular, serial time, with all its implications of continuity, yet ‘forgetting’ the experience of this continuity …engenders the need for a narrative of identity” (265). How does the theopolitical control of defined historical periods interface with nation-building projects of communal memory? I also remember reading Jonathan Tran’s The Vietnam War and Theologies of Memory (London: Blackwell, 2010); especially Tran’s discussion of the possibility of a Eucharistic time where the Lord’s Supper becomes the reordering power rather than authoritarianism.

MK: Yes, I do see the connections that you are pointing towards between the construction of memory, community identity, and national identity.

It makes sense to me that, by his own admission, Benedict Anderson was influenced by Walter Benjamin and Erich Auerbach. When I look at Imagined Communities, I see substantial connections between the imaginative construction of nationhood and the theopolitical periodization of time and history that I write about in Postsecular History. For Anderson, the nation is an “imagined political community” that is “both inherently limited and sovereign” (6), and this limitation is found in the borders that demarcate the nation and prevent others from gaining access to its spatial body. Anderson argues that even “the most messianic nationalists do not dream of a day when all the members of the human race will join their nation,” by contrast with a Christian vision of universal membership (7). He also argues that the nation is imagined as sovereign because it arose during a time when “Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm” (7).

To me this shows how the nation – as a figure and bearer of identity – was born of legitimation crises where religious and secular ways of thinking confronted each other, and its hold on sovereignty is at least partly owed to how nation-building projects use theological and religious modes of persuasion to retain power. In answer to your question, I see theopolitical forms of periodization as usable strategies that nationalists tend to employ in order to keep the image of the nation stable. Although the former is extremely violent compared to the latter, both Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” and Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” use periodizing terms to build national identity. The words ‘back’ and ‘again’ serve to periodize time and history by reaching back into the past and bringing values into the present for the sake of a future. The figural mediations between these terms are powerful because religious visions of history endure in partly secularized forms of nationalism. In the final pages of Imagined Communities, Anderson is critical of narratives that forget the past and create identities out of this amnesia. For him, what cannot be remembered (bodily) “must be narrated,” and this narration occurs in “secular, serial time” that structures both individual life stories and the stories nations tell about themselves (204-205).

I am not as familiar with Jonathan Tran’s work, but when I look at The Vietnam War and Theologies of Memory, I feel a great affinity with its diagnoses of the temporal problems of modernity (as in the section on “The Detemporalization of Time”), but I am not very sympathetic with how Tran positions the Christian Eucharist as a solution to such temporal problems. Again, I appreciate Tran’s diagnosis of the problem of forgetting in his book’s seventh chapter, but I do not think that the Eucharist is the best way of performing the important bodily rituals of remembrance that, for example, one would require in order to heal from trauma. Isn’t the communion table also a site of exclusion where identity is formed by often-violent boundaries between the baptized and unbaptized? Tran’s concept of Eucharistic memory seems somewhat idealized and disconnected from the deep power problems that lie within community identity formation. When thinking about how to remember and work through traumatic events I think that something like the Internal Family Systems model has more potential for promoting healing in our ‘postsecular’ and ‘postreligious’ world.

JHN: One of the challenges you grapple with early on in Postsecular History is that the “postsecular” does not have a readily accepted definition, and in its construction of both the “post” and the “secular” the term promotes problematic forms of periodization. This might be most clearly addressed in your discussion of the Dutch Collegiants in Chapter 3 where you note that “despite its proclamations of novelty and succession – the term ‘postsecular’ cannot make good on the claim of its prefix by placing itself beyond the secular, nor can it successfully exceed or free itself from either its secular or religious history.” Why is it that “postsecular” continues to be a powerful idea despite this problematic assertion?

MK: I think that the main problem with the category of the postsecular, as it is applied to a whole range of ideas and experiences, is that it implies that we can get past the past. The very notion that secular ways of thinking can be placed in the past using the prefix ‘post’ is contrary to what historians do all the time. My argument, in part, is that the postsecular is situated within a history that it attempts to overcome, but cannot overcome because the past remains in the present. And I fear that this contradiction is not the kind of contradiction that results in dialectical tensions that lead to creativity and life. Instead, the aspiration to overcome the secular leads to forms of forgetting and memory loss that prevent the making of living connections between past, present, and future.

JHN: I think your fourth chapter is perhaps the most fascinating. In it, you give a parallel reading of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick alongside a consideration of fanatical Anabaptism—as understood in relation to the Anabaptist Kingdom of Münster. Where did the inspiration come from to make such a juxtaposition?

MK: Well, that’s another interesting accident of history. Initially, the fourth chapter of Postsecular History was supposed to be a revision of my 2019 article in Political TheologyMüntzer, Taubes, and the Anabaptists” where I trace Anabaptist connections within Jacob Taubes’ Occidental Eschatology. But due to copyright problems I was forced to remove it at the last minute. However, in the early months of 2020, before the pandemic began in force, I was also auditing two graduate seminars. The first was Travis Kroeker’s seminar on Augustine’s City of God and Melville’s Moby Dick, and the second was Mike Driedger’s seminar on fanaticism at Brock University. The material I wrote while sitting in on these seminars was influenced by my work on the Postsecular History manuscript, and I began asking questions about how fanaticism figures in Melville’s novel and relates to how literary works periodize their narrative unfolding. Luckily, when I had to remove the middle chapter of the book, I had material from both sets of my seminar notes that fit together and meshed with the book’s argument, while also serving as a letter of gratitude to my teachers.

JHN: In conclusion, what would you say the contribution of Postsecular History is for historians and scholars in political theology?

MK: Jakob Burckhardt writes in his Reflections on History that “the philosophy of history is a centaur, a contradiction in terms [contradictio in adjecto] for history co-ordinates, and hence is unphilosophical, while philosophy subordinates, and hence is unhistorical.” Burckhardt argues that the problem with philosophy and history is that both are given to the idea that “our time is the consummation of all time” such that “the past may be regarded as fulfilled in us.” I suppose that my work in Postsecular History is focused on moving away from both coordination and subordination, toward richer and more textured ways of mediating between temporal and historical terms that do not abandon the desire for historical and temporal terms to facilitate movements from promise to fulfilment.

Part of this effort to find better ways of mediating between temporal and historical terms requires that we both understand the limitations of thinking in relation to origins and ends, and that we do not abandon the project of drawing promising and fulfilling connections between origins and ends. That is why I want to close with a quotation that followed me throughout the writing of this book but never fit well within its pages. In his book on Dostoevsky, Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin writes that

nothing conclusive has yet taken place in the world, the ultimate word of the world and about the world has not yet been spoken, the world is open and free, everything is still in the future and will always be in the future.

In the case of postsecular life where religions and secularities intermingle and the past returns ceaselessly in the present, I think it is important to hold things open and resist finality wherever it is found. My attempt to provide an historically attentive approach to the concept of the postsecular is part of this effort, and I hope it will cause its readers to pause and question the periodizing divisions of this age. But this pause should be informed by the topic of the concluding chapter of Postsecular History, which is waiting. I think that one remedial strategy for the temporal crises of our time – both the acceleration of time and the decay of its measures – is to cultivate a form of waiting that is actively engaged in the undoing of violent forms of periodization. For this I turn to the amazing work of German feminist Christian theologian Dorothee Sölle, whose mantra in her essay on waiting is “this is not it.” That’s what I think is the contribution of the book. Simply to say, with Bakhtin that the final word on the world has not been spoken, and with Sölle that the present state of things is not yet as it should be, in so many ways.

Through the lens of J. Harold Housman

EMU Special Collections was recently given a fascinating collection of digitized slides from the family of Dr. J. Harold Housman (1928-2009). Housman was a 1949 graduate of EMC who became a doctor and spent many years doing medical work in Tanzania, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Nigeria. 

These photographs, taken during his time at EMC, give a vivid glimpse into life at the college and Park View area. I hope you enjoy these images and if you see any one or any place you recognize, please share in the comments!

A mid-1940s view of EMC’s campus, prior to the construction of Northlawn (built in 1948) the Student Center/University Commons (built in 1957) or Hartzler Library (built 1971).
Martins Store, now used by the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding

The College Shoppe on Mt. Clinton Pike at the intersection of Park Road. It is now a private residence. 

J. Harold Housman was a keen pilot who got his pilot’s license at the age of 16. This photo was taken at the Hartman Airfield located on Chicago Avenue around where the Family Dollar now sits.

 

1947 Mixed Chorus
D. Ralph Hostetter supervises J. Harold Housman (right) and another student as they work on specimens.

J. Mark Stauffer

A. Don Augsburger

Students piled in a truck headed for a day out in the mountains

Sledding on the hill

Southern Anabaptist Colleges and Civil War Memory: Bridgewater College

Regina Wenger

Early next year, I’m presenting a paper at the American Society of Church History on a panel titled “Competing Identities: Denominational Higher Education in the American South.” In the literature on American higher education, the examination of denominational schools, particularly those in the South, remains understudied. My co-panelists and I hope to explore the impact of geography and religious affiliation on single-sex and co-educational colleges in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. My paper, tentatively titled “Embers of the ‘Burning’: Shenandoah Valley Anabaptists, Higher Education, and Civil War Legacy,” will investigate the postbellum tensions between nonresistance and the memory of the Civil War at two Anabaptist colleges in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley: Bridgewater College and Eastern Mennonite University. The former a school started by the Church of the Brethren, the latter a Mennonite institution. Founded in 1880 and 1917, respectively, many of the schools’ founders carried personal or family memories related to the destruction caused by the war. While the conference paper will address both schools, in the post I’m going to take an initial dive into the sources and offer some preliminary conclusions about the interplay between nonresistance, Civil War memory, and institutional life at Bridgewater College.

Elder John Kline and the Virginia Brethren’s interest in higher education emerged on the eve of the Civil War. Their early efforts indicate they possessed an increasing openness to the value of education for the benefit of the church. In 1857, the Yearly Meeting of the Brethren took action to allow members to advocate for higher education in accordance with “gospel principles.”1 Two years later, Brethren leadership spearheaded the creation of Cedar Grove Academy in the northern Rockingham County town of Broadway. It was the first Brethren institution for higher education. The Academy persisted through the Civil War, but closed soon after the conclusion of the conflict. Elder John Kline proved instrumental to its founding, gathering supporters, and providing the land for the school.2

As a local leader, Kline also played an important role in the Virginia Brethren’s response to the looming Civil War. Acknowledging the precarity of the nonresistant position, he and other church leaders worked diligently for provisions for Anabaptists in Virginia and Confederate conscription legislation. Though succeeding in that aim rather quickly with Virginia law, Confederate legislation threatened to nullify their efforts. Only after a brief imprisonment for noncompliance and the advocacy of Virginia political and military officials did Kline and other Anabaptist leaders obtain allowances from the Confederate governmen in October 1862 for Anabaptists to opt out of military service.3 Kline’s leadership in the Brethren community persisted, but hostility toward dissenting Anabaptists amped up as the war leeched empathy from their Shenandoah Valley neighbors.4 Unlike Anabaptists in neighboring Augusta County, Brethren and Mennonites in Rockingham County largely opposed secession, while many Anabaptists in both counties also supported the Confederacy through agricultural commerce.5 Elder Kline’s prominence, as well as his anti-slavery position and Union sympathies, made him a target for violence as the war escalated community tensions. Confederate loyalists murdered Kline near his home in Broadway on June 15, 1864, for his positions, but also in response to his frequent trips north on church business and alleged engagement in smuggling Anabaptists evading conscription into Union territory.6 Fifty years after his death, a Brethren historian described Kline as a “martyr” assassinated as part of a “deeply laid scheme” by those that despised his goodness and faithfulness to God.7 Only a few months after Kline’s murder, a second tragedy swept through the Anabaptist community in Rockingham County.

Union General Phillip Sheridan’s scorched earth campaigns in the Shenandoah Valley during the fall of 1864 indiscriminately scarred its residents, regardless of religious affiliation. The Valley served as a prime agricultural region for the Confederacy, so cutting off supplies to the South proved essential to Union victory. “The Burning,” as Sheridan’s autumn inferno came to be called, reduced the barns, mills, and homes of Anabaptists and their neighbors to ashes, with no regard for professed loyalty.8 The effects of the destruction continued to smolder in the Valley long after the fires ended. James Lehman and Steve Nolt conclude, “Never before—or since—had Mennonites [and other Anabaptists] in the United States experienced such collective property destruction.”9 The trauma caused by the Burning lingered after the war as the Union denied the claims of most Anabaptists who tried to recover assets lost in the conflagration due to their commercial support of the Confederacy.10 Such destruction also delayed any efforts to re-establish Brethren higher education in the Shenandoah Valley.

Fifteen years after the war’s end, the school that would be Bridgewater College started in southern Rockingham County. The years following the war necessitated rebuilding and a reorientation of collective identity. Lehman and Nolt note that, like many of their neighbors, Anabaptists in the reconstructing South chose to value the repair of national and local relationships over advocating for the rights of African Americans, which historian David Blight chronicled in his book Race and Reunion.11 Bridgewater College started as a joint effort between Daniel C. Flory, educated at the Brethren Juniata College, and Virginia Brethren leaders in 1880. Originally called Spring Creek Normal School, Flory’s co-educational institution maintained its ties to earlier Brethren education while also charting a new path. The first board included John J. Bowman, a Brethren layman who helped found the Cedar Grove Academy, as well as Walter B. Yount, who would become Bridgewater’s first president in 1895.12 Known as the Virginia Normal School in 1882, the institution settled in Bridgewater seven years later and took its eponymous name. Literary societies flourished at the normal school and later the college, as did sports.13 The institution experienced hardships in its early years, but it matured under the leadership of President Yount (1895-1910).14 Records produced in the years of his administration provide the first clear picture of the legacy of the Civil War at Bridgewater College.

The first printed Bridgewater College history owes its origins to a student society memorializing the Confederacy. A December 1902 program of Bridgewater’s Virginia Lee literary society produced pieces for the student periodical, the Philomathean Monthly, and eventually became a1905 alumni-produced institutional history titled Bridgewater College: Its Past and Present.15 One of the two societies formed in 1897 when the Philomathean Society grew too large, the Virginia Lee Society influenced student life and periodicals into the 1930s.16 The organization embedded remembrances of the southern cause into its activities. Selecting Confederate gray as their color, the Society celebrated Robert E. Lee’s birthday annually, adorned their space with his likeness, and hosted speakers who interacted or served with him.17 Examining the life and work of the Society’s founding president, John W. Wayland provides a glimpse into the endurance of Lost Cause memory and its connections to Bridgewater.

Born in Shenandoah County in 1872, John Walter Wayland started attending Bridgewater in the late 1890s, graduating in 1899. He presented the name “Virginia Lee” for the Society to honor the Lee family and the inaugural state that produced them. Wayland also composed the lyrics to the Society’s song.18 Upon his graduation from Bridgewater, Wayland served as Editor-In-Chief of Bridgewater College: Its Past and Present and its 1930 alumni-produced history: Fifty Years of Educational Endeavor. By the latter work’s publication, he had earned a PhD in History from the University of Virginia in 1907 and embarked on a prolific career as a professor, administrator, and author.19 He also spent a significant portion of his adult life ordained in the Brethren Church. He died in Harrisonburg, Virginia in 1962. A brief analysis of the Civil War/Reconstruction sections of one of Wayland’s histories illustrates how he viewed the conflict and rebuilding as a Virginia Brethren and historian.

In A History of Rockingham County (1912), Wayland couched his assessment of the conflict and rebuilding in a measured tone. While he did characterize Reconstruction as a failure, only once did he deploy the term “carpetbaggers” to describe northerners presence in the South.20 Wayland mentions that 418 African Americans registered for the 1867 election, and found their civic participation indicative of “why the process of reconstruction was accomplished [in Rockingham County] with so little disturbance.”21 The relatively small numbers of enslaved African Americans living in the County during the antebellum period, as well as the its proximity to the free state of West Virginia, likely contributed a smaller free Black population during Reconstruction. This context may have also influenced Wayland’s conclusion that reunification was an easy process.22 A History of Rockingham County contains a section titled: “Some Interesting Incidents.” Of the four events mentioned that occurred during the Civil War, the death of John Kline was one. Surrounding this account of “a martyr to duty and the work of peace,” Wayland placed reports of the death and memorial of Confederate General Turner Ashby, the ingenuity of General Stonewall Jackson, and the innocence of Confederate scouts in the murder of Union Lieutenant. John R. Meigs, an incident that helped spark General Sheridan’s burning of the Valley.23 The inclusion of Kline’s murder points to its importance in the mind of the book’s Virginia Brethren author, but its location points to a shift in how Bridgewater College through one of its notable alumni recalled the Civil War.

The trials of the Brethren during the Civil War and the civil religion of the Lost Cause formed two district streams of memory with no dissonance between them. The prevalence of the Lost Cause at the college and in Wayland’s writings is not altogether unsurprising given its pervasiveness in the South. Charles Reagan Wilson argues in Baptized in Blood that, as the civil religion of the South, the Lost Cause inextricably bound together southern culture and interpretations of history in ways that made it distinct from the northern civil religion. “Southerners interpreted the Civil War as demonstrating the height of Southern virtue, as a moral-religious crusade against the atheistic North…. The antebellum and wartime religious culture evolved into a Southern civil religion, based on Christianity and regional history.”24 Thus the religious life at Bridgewater, grounded in service to the nonresistant Brethren church and community, co-existed alongside a student organization memorializing the heroics of Robert E. Lee. Likewise, John W. Wayland remembered Elder John Kline for his nonresistance and faithfulness to God, rather than as an individual who opposed slavery and suffered death for his supposed actions for the Federal cause and Union sympathies. Couching an early supporter of Brethren education as a religious rather than political martyr allowed Wayland to place Kline alongside such venerated local Confederates as Turner Ashby and Stonewall Jackson. All these men could be celebrated for their faithfulness and dedication. The nonresistant convictions and wartime experiences of the Shenandoah Valley Brethren did not prevent the presence of the Lost Cause at Bridgewater College, but rather they dwelt alongside one another as influential, but mutually exclusive, historical memories.

As I develop this project, I’ll investigate further these initial conclusions about Bridgewater and put them into conversation with my exploration of Civil War memory at the slightly younger Mennonite school that became Eastern Mennonite University. What similarities and differences existed between Brethren and Mennonite historical narratives about the Civil War? How did those memories manifest in the institutional life of each school? It will be fascinating to continue to study the interplay between historical memory and Anabaptist theology, alongside attention to their roles in developing higher education in the South.


1. Paul Haynes Bowman, Brethren Education in the Southeast (Bridgewater, VA: Bridgewater College, 1955), https://digitalcommons.bridgewater.edu/brethren_education_southeast/1, 27. See also: Kenneth M. Shaffer, “Higher Education Institutions of the Church of the Brethren,” in Religious Higher Education in the United States: A Source Book, ed. Thomas Hunt and James Carper (New York: Routledge, 1996), 279–295, 279-281.

2. Shaffer, 282.

3. For a summary of this process see: Lehman, James O., and Steven M. Nolt. Mennonites, Amish, and the American Civil War (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007), ProQuest Ebook Central, 63-66. In his analysis of Confederate substitution in Rockingham County, John Sacher notes the statistically higher rates of substitution, which he primarily attributes it to the concentration of Anabaptists in the community. John Sacher, “The Loyal Draft Dodger?: A Reexamination of Confederate Substitution,” Civil War History 67, no. 2 (2011): 153–178, 161-165.

4. Lehman and Nolt. 56.

5. Lehman and Nolt, 58-60, 190-193, 199-200.

6. Lehman and Nolt, 189.

7. Daniel H. Zigler, History of the Brethren in Virginia (Elgin, IL: Brethren Publishing House, 1914).143-144.

8. For more detailed accounts of Sheridan’s campaigns see: Lehman and Nolt, Chapter 10; John L. Heatwole, The Burning: Sheridan’s Devastation of the Shenandoah Valley (New York: Rockbridge Publishing, 1998); and Jeannie Cummings Harding, “Retaliation with Restraint: Destruction of Private Property in the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign” (Masters Thesis, James Madison University, 2013), https://commons.lib.jmu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1241&context=master201019.

9. Lehman and Nolt, 199.

10. Lehman and Nolt. 226-227.

11. Lehman and Nolt, 222-223. Though they make this claim only about Mennonites, the similarities shared between Mennonites and Brethren make it claim likely to pertain to both groups. David A. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2001).

12. Bowman, 28; Francis Fry Wayland, Bridgewater College: The First Hundred Years 1880-1980 (Lawrenceville, VA: Brunswick Publishing Corporation, 1993). 11-12.

13. Francis Fry Wayland, 36-37.

14. He was named president in 1895, but held the leadership title “Chairman of the Faculty” beginning in 1892.

15. John W. Wayland, ed., Bridgewater College: Its Past and Present (Elgin, IL: Brethren Publishing House, 1905), 36.

16. Francis Fry Wayland, 91.

17. Francis Fry Wayland, 88-89.

18. Francis Fry Wayland, 87, 89.

19. In recognition of his educational influence, Rockingham County Schools opened a school named after Wayland in 1964. It still bears his name and is in operation today.

20. John W. Wayland, A History of Rockingham County, Virginia (Dayton, VA: Ruebush-Elkins Company, 1912), 172.

21. John W. Wayland, Rockingham County, 163.

22. Sacher, 160-161.

23. John W. Wayland, Rockingham County, 433-435.

24. Charles Regan Wilson, Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865–1920 (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1980), 7-8.

Hitler’s Mennonite Voters

Ben Goossen

In May 1933, Mennonites delivered Adolf Hitler the only country-wide majority he achieved in an open election. Four months after Hitler became Chancellor of Germany at the head of a short-lived coalition with another party, the Nazis won an outright majority during elections in a nearby microstate known as the Free City of Danzig. Located in what is today northern Poland, Danzig had a substantial Mennonite population. Mennonite ballots pushed the Nazis over the 50 percent threshold in the popular vote.1 A parliamentary majority allowed the Nazis to rule Danzig alone, and no fair state-wide elections were held again.

Would Mennonite opposition have prevented the Nazi Party from violently seizing full control of Danzig and turning the city into a loyal puppet state for Hitler? Assuredly not. Events surrounding the burning of the Reichstag in Germany demonstrate the Nazis’ willingness to manufacture crises to sideline their elected colleagues and to move toward single-party dictatorship. But then again, to envisage a world in which Danzig’s Mennonites did not widely welcome Nazism is to conjure an alternative reality indeed.2

As 1.5 percent of Danzig’s population, Mennonites punched above their weight. This historically pacifist Christian church disproportionately influenced Nazi rule in the Free City. During World War II, members became enmeshed in the Holocaust, staffing concentration camps and using Jewish slave labor on their farms and in their factories. Prominent Nazis believed most Mennonites were “Aryan.” They planned to settle tens of thousands from the USSR and the Americas on land in Eastern Europe stolen from Jews, Poles, and others. “[I]t would be of great propagandistic importance for the Mennonites overseas,” one SS officer wrote, “if one could deal very generously with the Mennonites in Danzig and their desires.”3

Hitler entered Danzig on September 19, 1939, early in World War II. His visit celebrated the Free City’s return to German sovereignty and the end of its status as a nominally independent Nazi puppet state. While in Danzig, Hitler spoke about Mennonites with Nazi politician Walter Neufeldt. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

After the Third Reich collapsed, Mennonite leaders from Danzig falsely portrayed themselves as victims of fascist persecution. Bruno Ewert, elder of the Heubuden church, disingenuously claimed: “The Jewish religion especially was severely attacked by the party, and since Christianity developed within the Jewish religion, it too, was cast aside.”4 Ewert failed to mention that like most of Danzig’s top Mennonite faith leaders, he himself had joined the Nazi Party. At the height of the Holocaust, in fact, he took advantage of Hitler’s machinery of death to grow church membership. Ewert performed baptisms at a site where Nazi doctors had killed children with disabilities. Murder helped make Mennonitism under Hitler’s rule.


The Free City of Danzig was a bizarre byproduct of the First World War. The city itself—today Gdańsk—had been founded in the tenth century. It was an old Hanseatic trading city on the Baltic Sea, humming with north European ship traffic and flush with products from its farming hinterland in the fertile Vistula River delta. Danzig’s population grew by the early twentieth century to around 400,000 people, ninety-five percent of whom spoke German. At the end of the First World War, the new state of Poland desired Danzig as a port, despite its strong German ties. The independent “Free City” emerged as a compromise.

Mennonites had inhabited the area since the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. They had originally come as religious refugees from the Netherlands. The ex-priest Menno Simons had promoted a radical embrace of Biblical teachings that challenged the authority of Catholic and Lutheran rulers alike. His followers practiced adult baptism. They refused to swear oaths. And they did not spread their faith with violence. As thousands faced imprisonment and death in West Europe, refugees found toleration in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. They built thriving farming communities across the Vistula Delta.

Between the World Wars, around 13,000 Mennonites lived along the Baltic Sea in nineteen congregations. The creation of Poland and the Free City of Danzig after World War I divided this population, which had previously been entirely within German borders. This map shows locations of Mennonite settlement in and near the Free City of Danzig. The Free City’s territory included 6,000 Mennonites, organized into six rural congregations as well as one urban church in the city of Danzig proper. Map adapted from GAMEO.

Four hundred years later, the Mennonites who helped to bring Nazism to Danzig were a theologically transformed group. Prior to the 1933 election, one preacher praised National Socialism to a ministerial assembly as “the only party which we as Mennonites can support.”5 This viewpoint would have been anathema to this preacher’s own ancestors. Church historian C. Henry Smith, observing from across the Atlantic, rightly assessed that Danzig’s Mennonites strayed from their roots. “Menno Simons would find himself ill at ease, today, among his namesakes,” Smith wrote, “were he to return to his familiar haunts around the Baltic.” A time-travelling Menno would soon be “in all likelihood, in a concentration camp.”6

Two factors made Danzig’s Mennonites particularly susceptible to Hitler’s project. First, members saw themselves as part of a global religious denomination they viewed as vulnerable to atheist communism. Since the eighteenth century, thousands of Mennonites had emigrated from the Danzig area to Imperial Russia. Although nationalist pressure convinced Danzig’s Mennonites to abandon pacifist teachings, they retained ties to pacifist coreligionists abroad. After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Mennonites in the new Soviet Union faced hardships. Their relatives in Danzig welcomed Hitler’s anti-Bolshevism and his antisemitism. The Führer blamed Soviet atrocities on a fictional cabal he labeled “Judeo-Bolshevism.”

Racial scientists considered Mennonites to be unusually pure specimens of Aryanism. Anthropologist Friedrich Keiter studied 386 members—including these three women—in or near the Free City of Danzig in 1931, helping integrate local Mennonites into racial scholarship already before Hitler’s rise to power. Source: Keiter, Rußlanddeutsche Bauern, Tafel VIII.

Second, Nazism appealed to Danzig Mennonites’ sense of aggrieved nationalism. Those who had given up pacifism and chosen not to emigrate adopted a strong German identity. They lamented Germany’s defeat in the First World War, and they reviled the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which became a nationalist punching bag. This treaty assigned guilt for World War I to Germany. It required steep reparations. And it split Danzig from Germany. The nineteen Mennonite congregations in eastern Germany, with 13,000 attendees, had once formed a united group. Versailles divided them between Germany, Poland, and the Free City (where 6,000 lived). Mennonite farmers further resented Danzig’s customs union with Poland.

During the 1930s, Mennonites became involved at every level of the Nazi Party in Danzig. Arthur Greiser, president of the Danzig Senate, reportedly praised Mennonites for having been his “fellow comrades in the years of struggle [before 1933].”7 One Mennonite activist, Otto Andres, became the second-highest-ranking Nazi in Danzig.8 Mennonite men joined the paramilitary SA and the SS. Their mothers, wives, and sisters populated Nazi women’s organizations. As was typical of other religious groups, many top officers probably left the church, but rank-and-file members usually retained church affiliation.9 Mennonite faith leadership became deeply Nazified. Party members headed five of the seven churches in the Free City.10


Nazi-controlled Danzig remained technically separate from the Third Reich until the outbreak of World War II. On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded neighboring Poland on false pretenses. Hitler declared Danzig’s reunification with the Reich, and on September 19, he triumphantly entered the formerly free city. Danzig’s predominantly German population welcomed the Führer and cheered their merger with Germany. After delivering a speech, Hitler met with local Nazi leadership in Danzig’s party headquarters. The conversation apparently touched on Mennonites. The Führer reportedly requested more materials about the faith, exclaiming: “Future founders of religions should take Mennonite traits as examples!”11

What impressed Hitler about Mennonites? The brief discussion in Danzig in 1939 surely did not highlight the faith’s historic pacifism. No transcript of this encounter exists, but we can surmise what the Führer likely heard by analyzing how religious leaders publicly depicted their faith in other instances. The main strategy church officials deployed to ingratiate themselves with top Nazis involved claiming racial purity. Mennonites had supposedly kept their bloodlines “Aryan” through centuries of intermarriage. German racial scientists had tested Mennonite populations in Danzig and agreed with this assessment.12 Faith leaders further sought to prove heritage by harvesting centuries-old data from church record books.13

Mennonites’ privileged racial status drew them into Nazi crimes. Hitler waged World War II as a race war. His soldiers conquered vast swaths of Eastern Europe to provide expanded “living space” for the German people, whom the Nazis considered a “master race.” The invaders and local collaborators seized property from Poles, Jews, and others. They distributed this plunder to members of the German racial elite and forced non-Germans into subservient positions. In Danzig, many Mennonites benefitted from robbery and slavery. For instance, SS officers at the Stutthof concentration camp, built in 1939, formed an entire labor commando with 500 inmates to serve a Mennonite arms manufacturer, Gerhard Epp.14

Leadership of the Mennonite-owned Epp Firm that leased hundreds of Jews and other slave laborers from the Stutthof concentration camp to produce munitions for war. Owner Gerhard Epp is seated at center. Source: Rehaag, ed., Ostseebad Stutthof, 114.

Danzig Mennonites also contributed to Nazi conquests and rule further east. Numerous prominent Nazi administrators in Eastern Europe hailed from Danzig, and faith leaders could use personal connections to pursue their interests in neighboring regions. Church delegations met with Nazi officials in the new Wartheland province, helping to ease the integration of Mennonites from occupied Poland into the Nazi order.15 When Hitler invaded the USSR in 1941, Danzig’s Mennonites especially watched developments in Ukraine.16 35,000 Mennonites remained in the area. Two years later as the Red Army advanced, most of these evacuated westward. An SS officer with Danzig ties oversaw their resettlement from Ukraine.17

The SS temporarily housed two large groups of Mennonites from Ukraine in former mental institutions near Danzig. Nazis had killed 4,000 patients at these facilities, known as Konradstein and Konitz. Among the victims were 550 children with disabilities transported to Konradstein for poisoning by 1943.18 The Mennonite resettlers knew that previous inhabitants had been murdered.19 Church leaders from Danzig welcomed these refugees’ arrival. They worked closely with Nazi administrators to provide spiritual care. In May 1944, dozens of young people from Konradstein traveled to the Heubuden church for baptismal training. Elder Bruno Ewert inducted them into the faith a week later in a hall of the mental institution.20

Bruno Ewert (second row, seventh from left) baptized these forty-seven Mennonite refugees from Ukraine at the former Konradstein mental institution, May 28, 1944. Source: Nachlaß Ernst Crous, Folder: Briefw. 1944, MFS.

Only one Mennonite from the Danzig region is known to have been imprisoned for resisting Nazism. The eldest son of a well-established Mennonite family, Hermann Epp had been arrested two months before Ewert baptized forty-seven young people in Konradstein. Epp’s attitudes toward Nazism were unusual in his family and among Danzig Mennonites generally. He had a history of communist sympathies and close friendships with Jews. In 1943, when his first child developed disabilities, Nazi officials forcibly took and euthanized the infant, possibly perpetrating this murder at Konradstein. Epp’s public bitterness landed him in the Stutthof concentration camp. Eventually released, he survived the Third Reich’s collapse.21


World War II’s end heralded the demise of the Mennonite communities around Danzig. In the last days of the war, much of Danzig’s population began a hectic evacuation westward. As Soviet forces advanced, Mennonites and others fled by ship to Denmark or through the countryside across pre-war borders with Germany. Bruno Ewert later recalled this time of terror. The evacuees “were plundered, the women of all ages were dishonored, many were taken captive, others suffered affliction and death. Families were brutally separated.”22 Ewert blamed Poles and Soviets for German suffering. He did not mention SS-led death marches from Stutthof, nor that Jewish deaths erased evidence of forced labor for Mennonites.23

A North American church aid organization, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), helped Mennonites from Danzig resettle in new homes. None wished or would have been allowed to return to their former residences, now located in the Soviet-dominated country of Poland. In 1945, MCC’s commissioner for refugee matters, C.F. Klassen of Canada, toured Europe to find displaced Mennonites. In Denmark, he met Bruno Ewert. This former elder of the Heubuden church had been working with fellow faith leaders to contact thousands of Mennonites refugees, and Ewert shared his list with Klassen.24 Over the next decade, MCC helped resettle thousands of Danzig Mennonites to Canada, Uruguay, and West Germany.

MCC leaders kept quiet about the Danzig Mennonites’ deep ties to Nazism. Aid workers privately called the number of former Nazis among the refugees “amazing.”25 The organization nevertheless sought to reintegrate this group into the international faith community. Before a Mennonite World Conference in the US in 1948, staff selected four delegates from Germany. They had difficulty finding any clergy from Danzig, however, who could meet visa qualifications.26 Previous Nazi Party membership precluded both short visits and emigration. MCC worked with faith leaders in North America who successfully lobbied Canada to accept Mennonite refugees from Danzig, beyond “the few who are not party members.”27

The history of Hitler’s Mennonite voters should be of substantial interest today. These Christians came from a tradition that professed peaceful coexistence. By the 1930s, they had become rabidly nationalist and antisemitic. Mennonite voters helped bring the Nazi Party to power in the Free City of Danzig, and when Hitler’s expansionism unified this territory with the Third Reich during World War II, they joined in the process of expropriation and genocide. Religious leaders claimed resistance and persecution after the war, but we can count the number of Danzig Mennonites jailed for anti-Nazi activities on one finger. Dealing openly and seriously with this past remains a task for Mennonites over seventy-five years later.

Ben Goossen is a fellow with the American Historical Association and the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, published with Princeton University Press. Thanks to Danuta Drywa, Arnold Neufeldt-Fast, Frank Peachey, Alain Epp Weaver, and Madeline J. Williams for help with this essay.


1. Due to Danzig’s parliamentary system, the Nazi win on May 28, 1933, was more substantial (38 out of 72 seats in the Volkstag) than indicated by their razor-thin popular vote majority, which exceeded the 50% mark by only 267 ballots. Additional research is required to understand precisely how Mennonites contributed to the electorate. If they were registered at the same rate as other Danzigers, voted at the same rate, and chose parties in the same percentages as their neighbors, then Mennonites would have had about 3,438 registered voters; 3,230 would have voted; and 1,647 would have chosen the Nazis. However, the Nazi Party’s strong rural showing in Danzig suggests that these estimates may be low, a possibility affirmed by contemporary observers: “the overwhelming majority of German Mennonites were always nationally oriented and welcomed Hitler’s project with open arms.” Benjamin Unruh to D. Hege, July 28, 1933, Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 2, folder 8, Mennonitische Forschungsstelle, Bolanden-Weierhof, Germany (hereafter MFS); “The majority of Mennonites welcomed the National Socialist seizure of power on January 30, 1933, in the German Reich and in May of the same year in Danzig.” Hermann Epp, “Die Westpreussischen Gemeinden von 1933 bis zum Untergang,” Der Mennonit 1, no. 1 (1948): 4.

2. On the Free City of Danzig, see Christoph Kimmich, The Free City: Danzig and German Foreign Policy, 1919-1934 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968); Herbert Levine, Hitler’s Free City: A History of the Nazi Party in Danzig, 1925-1939 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973); Dieter Schenk, Danzig 1930-1945: Das Ende einer Freien Stadt (Berlin: Ch. Links, 2013). The topic of Mennonites in the Free City of Danzig deserves more attention from historians. Important treatments include Gerhard Rempel, “Mennonites and the Holocaust: From Collaboration to Perpetuation,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 84, no. 4 (2010): 507-508, 512-525; Steven Schroeder, “Selective Memory: Danziger Mennonite Reflections on the Nazi Era, 1945-1950,” in European Mennonites and the Holocaust, ed. Mark Jantzen and John Thiesen (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2020), 307-318. For works on Mennonites in the Danzig region prior to World War I, see Peter J. Klassen, Mennonites in Early Modern Poland and Prussia (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009); Mark Jantzen, Mennonite German Soldiers: Nation, Religion, and Family in the Prussian East, 1772–1880 (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010).

3. Gerhard Wolfrum suggested this language to Mennonite leader Benjamin Unruh in the spirit of advising Unruh how best to phrase a letter the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, with a specific request. Quoted in Benjamin Unruh to Gustav Reimer, January 12, 1944, Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 4, folder 21, MFS.

4. Bruno Ewert, “Four Centuries of Prussian Mennonites,” Mennonite Life 3 (April 1948): 15-16. Other Mennonite leaders from Danzig and nearby regions made similar exculpatory ex post facto claims, for instance falsely alleging that church leaders took “a very determined stand… against the advocates of anti-Semitism.” Emil Händiges, “The Catastrophe of the West Prussian Mennonites,” Mennonite Quarterly Review, 24, no. 2 (1950): 126-127.

5. Quoted in Ewert, “Four Centuries of Prussian Mennonites,” 15. The views of this preacher, Gerhard Fast of Heubuden, appear to have been shared generally by Danzig’s Mennonite clergy. A conference of faith leaders from Danzig and nearby regions sent a telegram to Hitler on September 10, 1933, expressing “deepest thanks for the mighty revolution, which God has granted our nation through your energy.” Aron Mekelborger, “Bericht über die 4. Allgem. Westpr. Konferenz in Tiegenhagen am 10. September 1933,” Mennonitische Blätter, October 1933, 101.

6. C. Henry Smith, The Story of the Mennonites (Berne, IN: Mennonite Book Concern, 1941), 345.

7. Quoted in Benjamin Unruh “Bericht über Verhandlungen im Warthegau im März 1944,” March 30, 1944, Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 4, folder 21, MFS. On Greiser’s career in Danzig, see Catherine Epstein, Model Nazi: Arthur Greiser and the Occupation of Western Poland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 15-123. Danzig’s SA leader, Bruno Fricke, was moreover familiar with Mennonites abroad. He had lived in Latin America and published about a group in Paraguay. Bruno Fricke, “Das Drama der Sklaven im Chaco,” Münchener Beobachter, August 22, 1926.

8. See Imanuel Baumann, “Der Mennonit und Nationalsozialist Otto Andres (1902–1975),” Mennonitische Geschichtsblätter 75 (2018): 87-99. Andres (who left the Mennonite church in 1929) also served as Commissioner for the county of Großes Werder, one of five major administrative regions of the Free City. His deputy, Cornelius Jansson, was a practicing Mennonite. Jansson took over administrative duties in Großes Werder when Andres was away, e.g., when he became the Lieutenant Governor (Stellvertreter-Gauleiter) of Danzig-West Prussia in late 1939. In this capacity, Jansson was involved in the expansion of the Stutthof concentration camp. Horst Gerlach, “The Final Years of Mennonites in East and West Prussia, 1943–45,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 66, no. 2 (1992): 239.

9. Of five SS officers in the Free City with the common Mennonite surname “Wiens,” only one listed Mennonite affiliation, and church records show that he remained unbaptized. See A3343, roll 243B, Captured German and Related Records, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland, USA (hereafter NARA); Christian Neff, ed., Mennonitisches Adreßbuch 1936 (Karlsruhe, 1936), 202. By contrast, four rank-and-file SS men with the common Mennonite surname “Enss,” self-identified as Mennonite. See A3343-SM-C107, NARA. These preliminary findings conform to broader patterns among Christians in the SS. See Herbert F. Ziegler, Nazi Germany’s New Aristocracy: The SS Leadership, 1925-1939 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 87. Mennonite church leaders appear to have welcomed SS membership among congregants. When the SS denied membership to one Mennonite, faith leaders appealed directly to Himmler. Emil Händiges to Heinrich Himmler, August 12, 1938, Vereinigung, folder: Briefw. 1938 Jul.-Dez., MFS. In another case, the son of a preacher from southern Germany joined the SS “without problem by giving a Mennonite promise [rather than swearing an oath].” Benjamin Unruh to Gerhard Wolfrum, January 19, 1944, Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 4, folder 21, MFS.

10. See NSDAP membership files for elders Johannes Dyck II of Ladekopp (joined 1936), Bruno Enss of Orlofferfelde (joined 1936), Bruno Ewert of Heubuden (joined 1937), Johann Penner of Ladekopp (applied 1936 – no surviving membership card), Ernst Regehr of Rosenort (joined 1931), and Franz Regehr of Tiegenhagen (joined 1933), NARA. A Mennonite delegation to Nazi headquarters in Munich affirmed, “As a church we unconditionally support the party.” These delegates reported that in Danzig, “the great majority of elders and preachers are members of the party.” Gustav Reimer, “Bericht über die Verhandlung in Braunen Haus in München am 6.7.1938, betreffend die Regelung der Eidesfrage,” Vereinigung, box 2, folder: Briefw. 1938 Jul.-Dez., MFS. Internal church correspondence confirms: “numerous respected members of the Mennonite ministry wear the swastika on their breast with pride and joy as party members.” Emil Händiges to Daniel Dettweiler, Benjamin Unruh, Ernst Crous, Abraham Braun, and Gustav Reimer, June 23, 1938, Vereinigung, box 2, folder: Briefw. 1938 Jan.-Jun., MFS.

11. Gerlach, “The Final Years,” 240. Hitler spoke at this meeting with the Mennonite Walter Neufeldt, Commissioner of Marienburg County in East Prussia. In response to Hitler’s request for follow-up, Neufeldt gathered documents with help from church leaders Johannes Dyck II and Gustav Reimer and the non-Mennonite historian Erich Keyser.

12. The racial scientist Friedrich Keiter evaluated 386 Mennonites from the Rosenort, Orlofferfelde, Ladekopp, and Heubuden congregations in Danzig as well as from the Elbing and Markushof-Thiensdorf churches in East Prussia. He noted the “especially gracious obligingness of the Mennonites themselves,” thanking the Danzig elders Erich Göttner, Franz Regehr, and Johann Penner as well as Emil Händiges and Cornelius Dirksen of East Prussia. Friedrich Keiter, Rußlanddeutsche Bauern und ihre Stammesgenossen in Deutschland (Jena: Gustav Fischer, 1934), 2. Erich Keyser lauded Danzig Mennonites’ “special racial biological importance” and recommended further “detailed racial examination.” Erich Keyser, “Die Mennoniten im Weichselland,” Volk und Rasse 17, no. 4 (1942): 72-73.

13. The secretary of the Union of Mennonite Congregations in the German Reich explained this process to the Union’s two top officials: “I have experience approving (notarizing) ancestry passports in cases when they cannot be notarized by registry offices. It is probably the case for all ancestry passports that some ancestors can be notarized by the registry office, and others must be notarized by the appropriate church official. In our congregations, the church council is of course entitled to perform notarizations by affixing the congregational seal.” Abraham Braun to Emil Händiges and Ernst Crous, December 22, 1939, Vereinigung, folder: Briefw. 1939, MFS. In the Free City of Danzig, deacon Gustav Reimer of Heubuden became particularly active in notarizing Aryan papers for practicing as well as former Mennonites. According to Reimer, “none of the men from our circles who today hold leading positions in the economy or politics could have provided the necessary proof of Aryan ancestry without my assistance.” Gustav Reimer, “Fritz van Bergen-Kartei,” Mitteilungen des Sippenverbandes Danziger Mennoniten-Familien 8, no. 4/5 (1942): 128-130. He reported that without church records, “proving Aryan ancestry—especially for dates before 1800—would never have been possible.” Gustav Reimer, “Die Kirchenbücher der Menno. Gemeinden in West- und Ostpreussen,” Der Berg 7 (1940): 83. Ancestry documentation from before 1800 would only have been necessary for people in high party or state positions, such as SS officers.

14. On this “Epp Kommando,” see Jania Grabowska, Stutthof: Ein Konzentrationslager vor den Toren Danzigs (Bremen: Edition Temmen, 1995), 30, 55, 74; Günter Regaag, ed., Ostseebad Stutthof (Heimat-Dokumentation Stutthof, 1995), 114-115; Marek Orski, Niewolnicza praca więźniów obozu koncentracyjnego Stutthof w latach 1939-1945 (Gdańsk: Muzeum Stutthof w Sztutowie, 1999), 61, 136, 156-158, 167-168, 178, 236-239, 263, 294, 302; Danuta Drywa, The Extermination of Jews in Stutthof Concentration Camp (Gdańsk: Muzeum Stutthof w Sztutowie, 2004), 118; Danuta Drywa, “Stutthof – Stammlager,” in Der Ort des Terrors: Geschichte der nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslager, vol. 6, ed. Wolfgang Benz and Barbara Distel (Munich: C.H. Beck, 2007), 512; Rempel, “Mennonites and the Holocaust,” 520-525. Epp was a member of the Mennonite church in Tiegenhagen. Neff, ed., Mennonitisches Adreßbuch, 205. Broader Mennonite involvement with the Stutthof camp requires further study. Lists of camp staff include surnames common among Danzig Mennonites, including Bartels, Berg, Classen, Dirks, Enss, Fast, Foth, Friese, Gortz, Haack, Hamm, Janson, Jansson, Jantz, Jantzen, Janz, Janzen, Löwen, Pauls, Peters, Ratzlaff, Reimer, Schröder, Thimm, Unrau, Vogt, Wall, Wedel, Wiebe, and Zimmermann. See the three-part staff list: Mirosław Gliński, “Załoga obozu koncentracyjnego Stutthof,” Stutthof: Zeszyty Muzeum 5 (1984): 188-216; 6 (1985): 97-120; 7 (1987): 203-234. These names might profitably be checked against Mennonite church lists.

15. After extensive exchange of correspondence, a Mennonite delegation met with Wartheland officials on January 22, 1942. Emil Händiges to Gausippenamt im Warthegau, August 31, 1944, Nachlaß Ernst Crous, folder: Briefw. 1944, MFS. After this meeting, SS officers in Wartheland identified Mennonites in the Americas as their preferred settlers. See Andreas Strippel, NS-Volkstumspolitik und die Neuordnung Europas: Rassenpolitische Selektion der Einwandererzentralstelle des Chefs der Sicherheitspolizei und des SD, 1939-1945 (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh, 2011), 245. A lay Mennonite leader from the Lemberg church, Rudolf Dick, acquired affiliation with Wartheland’s Department for Ethnic Questions, where he advocated for Mennonites. Dick helped organize Benjamin Unruh’s meeting with Wartheland governor Arthur Greiser on March 16, 1944. In addition to welcoming Mennonites from Ukraine, Greiser expressed interest in “the planned resettlement of [Mennonites] from overseas, right after the end of the war.” Unruh “Bericht über Verhandlungen im Warthegau.” After Unruh’s trip, SS officers issued special instructions for handling Mennonite resettlers. Strippel, NS-Volkstumspolitik und die Neuordnung Europas, 247.

16. Two thirds of soldiers in a Wehrmacht division that fought around the Mennonite settlements in Ukraine were reportedly from Danzig, with some units being up to forty percent Mennonite. Horst Gerlach, Die Russlandmennoniten, vol. 1 (Kirchheimbolanden: Selbstverlag, 1992), 90. Reports of invaders’ encounters with Mennonites in Ukraine include Günther Fieguth, “Volksdeutscher Aufbruch am Dniepr,” Danziger Vorposten, December 13, 1942; Agnes Epp, “Ein Geschenk des Führers an unsers Sippenangehörigen in der Ukraine,” Mitteilungen des Sippenverbandes Danziger Mennoniten-Familien 8, no. 3 (1942), 112-113; P.H., “Von unseren Siedlungen in der Ukraine,” Nachrichtenblatt des Sippenverbandes Danziger Mennoniten-Familien (December 1943): 2-3.

17. Benjamin Unruh testified after the war that Werner Lorenz, who headed the Ethnic German Office of the SS, had been “very well acquainted with the Mennonites from Danzig, and he knew the attitude of our church, and he respected our attitude, and he promised us all possible support.” “United States of America v. Ulrich Greifelt et al.,” December 17, 1947, M894, roll 4, NARA. Unruh took up regular contact with Lorenz after a personal audience with Himmler: “An extremely good relationship has developed between us and the high [Nazi] leaders. I may write and meet at any time in relation to Mennonite matters. We have agreed that Lorenz will personally work on our matters. He is constantly in contact with Himmler and [Horst] Hoffmeyer [an SS officer responsible for Mennonites in Ukraine].” Benjamin Unruh to Emil Händiges, January 22, 1943, Vereinigung, box 3, folder: Briefw. 1943, MFS.

18. Irena Sławińska and Franciszek Ścigała, “Kocborowo (Conradstein) Landesanstalt für psychische Kranke,” in Die Ermordung der Geisteskranken in Polen, 1939-1945, ed. Zdzisław Jaroszewski (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, 1993), 57-63; Volker Rieß, Die Anfänge der Vernichtung ‘lebensunwerten Lebens’ in den Reichsgauen Danzig-Westpreußen und Wartheland 1939/40 (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1995), 23-53, 150-166; Maria Fiebrandt, Auslese für die Siedlergesellschaft: Die Einbeziehung Volksdeutscher in die NS-Erbgesundheitspolitik im Kontext der Umsiedlungen 1939-1945 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014), 293-297. For more background, see Doris Bergen, War & Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), 129-165.

19. One boy reported hearing that previous inhabitants of the Konitz mental institution “had been ‘disposed of’ as being, in Hitler-perspective, ‘unworthy life.’” Waldemar Janzen, Growing Up in Turbulent Times: Memoirs of Soviet Oppression, Refugee Life in Germany, and Immigrant Adjustment to Canada (Winnipeg: CMU Press, 2007), 62.

20. Gustav Reimer to Christian Neff, May 26, 1944, Christian Neff Nachlaß, Folder: Briefwechsel 1944, MFS.

21. Christiana Epp Duschinsky, “Mennonite Responses to Nazi Human Rights Abuses: A Family in Prussia/Danzig,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 32 (2014): 87-89. See also Gerlof Homan, “From Danzig to Down Under: A Mennonite-Jewish Family’s Escape from the Nazis to Australia,” Mennonite Historical Bulletin 73, no. 1 (2012): 13-18. Mennonite church leaders’ attitudes toward Nazi euthanasia policies require additional research. Other faith groups exhibited substantial opposition to euthanasia, and at least one Mennonite preached a sermon opposing it. James Irvin Lichti, Houses on the Sand? Pacifist Denominations in Nazi Germany (New York: Peter Lang, 2008), 79. However, faith leaders’ sympathies appear to have been limited. Benjamin Unruh worked with colleagues to help keep most Mennonite refugee families from Ukraine together, but when SS agents told him disabled members could not be settled in Wartheland with other Mennonites, he did not press the matter. Benjamin Unruh, “Bericht über meine zweite Reise in den Warthegau,” July 17, 1944, Nachlaß Benjamin Unruh, box 4, folder 21, MFS.

22. Ewert, “Four Centuries of Prussian Mennonites,” 17.

23. 41,500 prisoners had died in the main Stutthof camp or its satellite facilities between 1939 and 1945. Another 21,500 died during the evacuation in the last weeks of the war. Forty-three percent of all Stutthof inmates killed were Jews, and the vast majority of these died during the war’s final year. Drywa, “Stutthof – Stammlager,” 520.

24. Ewert, “Four Centuries of Prussian Mennonites,” 18.

25. Peter Goertz to Emil [Unknown] and Rachel [Unknown], November 15, 1947, Peter S. Goertz Collection, Box 2, Folder: Correspondence October-December 1947, Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kansas, USA.

26. Two of the four individuals MCC staff had originally chosen turned out to be former Nazis. When MCC workers tried to replace these delegates, they found the refugee group from Danzig-West Prussia “apparently has no non-party members among its active ministers in the western zones of Germany at the present time.” Harold Bender to Orie Miller, P.C. Hiebert, and H.A. Fast, March 13, 1948, IX-06-03, box 64, folder 35/73, Mennonite Central Committee Archives, Akron, Pennsylvania, USA (hereafter MCCA). MCC staff thus worked with many former Nazis, although they praised the anti-Nazi Hermann Epp and hired him for editorial work: “He is the one Mennonite from West Prussia, or even in all Germany, so far as I know, who suffered for his anti-Nazi convictions, and spent some time in prison…. He, alone of all the West Prussian refugees [i.e. from Danzig-West Prussia] in Denmark, has been classified as an Allied D.P. [Displaced Person], and consequently has received freedom and different treatment.” Harold Bender to C.F. Klassen and Robert Kreider, October 25, 1947, IX-06-03, box 55, folder 29/147, MCCA.

27. “MCC Gronau Annual Report 1950,” December 1, 1950, IX-19-16.3, box 1, folder 9/27, MCCA. When 62 Danzig Mennonites applied for Canadian visas as a test case, 35 were denied due to past party membership. Sponsors in Canada assessed that, since “most Danziger were connected with the party,” any large-scale migration to Canada would require changing rules that barred Nazis. J.J. Thiessen, “Bericht des Vorsitzenden der Canadian Mennonite Board of Colonization für die erweiterte Boardsitzung,” March 1, 1951, IX-19-9, box 3, folder 2/21, MCCA.

MCC at 100: Mennonites, Service, and the Humanitarian Impulse

University of Winnipeg’s Centre for Transnational Mennonite Studies invites all to attend a free virtual conference “MCC at 100: Mennonites, Service, and the Humanitarian Impulse.” This three-day conference running from September 30 to October 2 brings together more than three dozen presentations that cover diverse aspects of Mennonite Central Committee’s 100 year history ranging from famine relief in Ukraine in the 1920s to the relief agency’s role in peace-building, rural development and refugee movements across the globe. A featured evening session on September 30, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, reflects on “MCC and Indigenous-settler relations in Turtle Island.”  Attendees can register for the conference and view a full program at https://mennonitestudies.uwinnipeg.ca/events/   

Not so Utopian? The Moral Economy of Communal Property

Martin Lutz

Thomas More’s “little, true book, not less beneficial than enjoyable, about how things should be in a state and about the new island Utopia” – more commonly known as just Utopia – imagined a society based on common property, with full equality, no poverty, and an abundance of daily necessities for all. First published in 1516, this fictitious tale outlined a seemingly perfect commonwealth, providing a stark contrast to contemporary economic inequality and social misery.1

(Utopia Thomas More (1518 November))

How could Utopia’s citizens achieve such a phenomenal economic performance leading to seemingly universal welfare? There was no idleness, for one, as everyone was expected to work and contribute to society’s well-being. As the character Raphael Hythloday explains to his puzzled listeners, “if they all were put to work—and useful work at that—you can easily see how little time would be enough and more than enough time to produce all the goods required for human needs and conveniences.”2 Moreover, Utopians did not pursue their own interest in their economic activity but tried to serve the general need. But it was especially the principle of common property that allowed the island to establish such a beneficial commonwealth. As Hythloday summarizes:

For elsewhere they always talk about the public good but they are concerned with their own private welfare; here [in Utopia], where there is no private property, everyone works seriously for the public good. And for good reason in both places, for elsewhere is there anyone who does not know that unless he looks out for his own personal interest he will die of hunger, no matter how flourishing the commonwealth may be; therefore necessity causes him to think he should watch out for his own good, not that of others, that is, of the people. On the other hand, here, where everything belongs to everyone, no one doubts that (as long as care is taken that the public storehouses are full) nothing whatever will be lacking to anyone for his own use. For the distribution of goods is not niggardly; no one is a pauper or a beggar there, and though no one has anything, all are rich.3

How utopian is such an economic world in the context of modern capitalism, an age usually associated with individual profit maximization, competitive markets, self-interest and greed? In other words, is it at all possible for the infamous homo economicus to break out from the real world to create something even vaguely similar to Thomas More’s Utopia?

A rare glimpse into the diary of a German traveler to the American and Canadian West in the years 1930-31 offers such an alternative perspective. It was in the midst of the Great Depression that hit Germany even harder then North America, inflicting political turmoil and contributing to the rise of the Nazi Party. The diary’s first entry dates from July 18, 1930, the day when German Reichspräsident Paul von Hindenburg dissolved the Weimar Republic’s last parliamentary government. The following election campaign was marked by ever increasing unemployment rates, strong antisemitic and anti-democratic sentiment from the extremist left and right. In the September election, the Nazi party won a landslide victory, a key milestone on Hitler’s ascent to political power that he finally achieved in January 1933.

The lone German traveler, who sympathized with Christian socialism and who was a staunch pacifist, thus had much to ponder on his journey. With his home country in turmoil and witnessing the Great Depression’s disastrous impact on America, his final destination must have appeared to him like a true Utopia. Nestled in the South Dakota plains, the visitor experienced the vision of a small-scale society based on communal property. There, all able-bodied members worked, including women and older children, contributing to the community’s overall welfare.4 In this setting, the communities produced sufficiently to sustain their membership, and it seemed to serve their commonwealth well. The traveler’s diary does not report a single issue that plighted Depression-era America: neither starvation, homelessness, unemployment, nor social deprivation.

It does probably not to come to the surprise of this blog’s readers that the communities in question were the Hutterite Bruderhöfe, scattered across the Northern Plains in the United States and Canada. The traveler was Eberhard Arnold, who had experimented with communal living in the 1920s and founded the Rhön Bruderhof in 1926. His trip to America served the purpose of connecting the newly founded community in Germany to the historical Hutterite church. Being well versed in Anabaptist history and belief, Arnold enthusiastically wrote that “[u]p till today the complete communism in production and consumption of every single Bruderhof […] and also the absolute unity of faith of all 35 Bruderhöfe is as good as completely unshaken; one can almost say is preserved absolutely pure.”5 This “purity” of the Bruderhof community was firmly based on Anabaptist-Hutterite religious principles, in particular the central tenant to forgo individual property and to “have all things common” (Acts 4:32).

The Hutterite communal economics not only provides a seemingly stark contrast to its capitalist surroundings; it also exemplifies how moral values decisively shape economic thinking, institutions and practice. This is the core of the current scholarly debate on moral economy, an interdisciplinary field of research that has grown from humble beginnings to prominence in the last decades.6

In The Moral Economists,7 intellectual historian Tim Rogan places the debate’s origin to T.H. Tawney, a British economic historian who published the influential book Religion and the Rise of Capitalism in 1926. Tawney found much at fault with modern capitalism, and it is in the context of his fundamental moral critique that he referred to Thomas More’s Utopia. Tawney was no mere academic confined to his ivory tower. He engaged in workers’ education, sympathized with Christian socialism and was politically active. Likely Tawney never learned about the Hutterites; otherwise he surely would have been keenly interested in this form of Christian communism.

(Mennonite Church USA Archives @ Flickr Commons)

Other academics, however, took note of the Hutterite communal economy. One was historian Victor Peters who in the 1965 book All Things Common provided one of the first systematic analyses of the Hutterite economic way of life in the context of modern American capitalism. It is no coincidence that the book’s opener immediately refers to Thomas More’s Utopia, for Peters considered the Hutterite Bruderhof as

literally utopian, for it was Thomas More who wrote: “For what can be more rich than to live joyfully and tranquilly without any worry, not fearful for his own livelihood, nor vexed and troubled with his wife’s importunate complaints, not dreading poverty to his sons, nor anxious about his daughter’s dowry? But instead to be secure about the livelihood and happiness of their wives, children, grandchildren, and their posterity which they handsomely assume will be a long time.”8

And yet, not all seems to have been as ideal and idealistic in practice. Twenty-five years before Peters’ scholarly account, Eberhard Arnold admiringly wrote about the impressive agricultural operations he observed, including a “very large mill,” a “gigantic thresher” and “the most modern motors.” While this sophisticated (and likely quite expensive) modern equipment at first glance appeared to be highly beneficial for improving efficiency in production, a somewhat puzzled Arnold also noted a counter perspective. It was voiced by an elder at Rockport Bruderhof who did not praise the progress, but rather was worried about decay, lamenting “the no longer Hutterian school, the economic rationalization of the Bruderhöfe, the influence of the world and diminishing unity in the style of life and the waning influence of elders.”9

From Eberhard Arnold’s perspective, trying to find an escape from the troubled circumstances in Germany, his puzzlement seems understandable. At the same time, the Rockport elder’s concern is highly plausible from a more distant analytical viewpoint. By 1930, American Hutterites were far from isolated, even if their remote settlement location would appear to be. The Bruderhöfe were instead tightly connected with their environment, particularly in economic terms. Hutterites produced for the market and were in turn susceptible to volatile prices, took out loans, bought machinery, and in many other ways relied on exchange with the outside world.

It thus should not surprise us that Hutterites were confronted with beliefs, ideologies, and rationales that competed with or were in direct opposition to their own Anabaptist beliefs. How should a Hutterite discern the logic of economic growth, profit-maximization, expansion, and efficiency gains in a competitive environment? How could Hutterite moral values be compatible with the requirements of modern capitalism? And how would this eventually shape the seeming “purity” of the Bruderhof community that Arnold so greatly admired in the following decades? Answers to these questions, I am convinced, will not only enhance our understanding of Hutterites in the context of the modern world. It would also offer a viable contribution to the much wider debate on the relationship between moral values and the economy.


1. It is important to note, however, that Utopia was not without flaws, at least from a 21st century perspective. These include the institution of slavery, as well as imperial wars of aggression against the island’s neighbors. Katherine Hill recently addressed More’s Utopia in a different context in her post on this blog: https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2020/12/21/utopian-imaginations/

2. Thomas More, Utopia, with the assistance of Jerry Harp, and Clarence Miller, Second edition (New Haven, Conn, London: Yale University Press, 2014), 63.

3. More, Utopia, 129–30.

4. Eberhard Arnold’s Diary, 1973, Hist Mss I-447, Box 20, Goshen Archive, 6.

5. Eberhard Arnold’s Diary, 170.

6. From the extensive current literature see for example: Ute Frevert, “Moral Economies, Present and Past: Social Practices and Intellectual Controversies,” in Moral Economies, ed. Ute Frevert et al., Geschichte und Gesellschaft Heft 026 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2019); Norbert Götz, “’Moral Economy’: Its Conceptual History and Analytical Prospects,” Journal of Global Ethics 11, no. 2 (2015); Andrew Sayer, “Approaching Moral Economy,” in The Moralization of the Markets, ed. Nico Stehr, Christoph Henning and Bernd Weiler, first paperback printing (New Brunswick, NJ, London: Transaction Publishers, 2010).

7 Tim Rogan, The Moral Economists: R.H. Tawney, Karl Polanyi, E.P. Thompson, and the Critique of Capitalism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018).

8 Victor Peters, All Things Common: The Hutterian Way of Life (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1965), 102–3 A few years before this book, Peters had already introduced this idea in an article to the Manitoba Pageant, 7 (1961), 1: http://www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/pageant/07/hutterites.shtml. A more recent contribution is by Thomas Nauerth in the Plough Quarterly magazine, published by Bruderhof’s Plough Publishing House, the https://www.plough.com/en/topics/justice/politics/finding-utopia.

9 Eberhard Arnold’s Diary, 170.

Mementos from Around the World: New Sources from A.D Wenger’s Six Months in Bible Lands

Regina Wenger

I recently pulled from my bookshelf my great-grandfather A.D. Wenger’s account of his globe-trekking journey in 1899-1900: Six Months in Bible Lands and Around the World in Fourteen Months. It’d been a while since I read it, but I should have known that as a historian it was impossible for me to just read a primary source for fun. It sparked an interest to play with some digital history tools, but also to highlight some new material sources that I discovered in my extended family’s possession.

Amos Daniel (A.D) Wenger was born in 1867, just north of Harrisonburg, Virginia and under the shadow of the Civil War. After several terms of elementary school, he completed a teachers certificate at Bridgewater Normal School.1 However, rather than teaching, Wenger followed a call to preaching and farming which took the twenty-two year old out west. In addition to traveling around Mennonite communities, he trained at Moody Bible Institute, received ordination, and inaugurated an evangelistic ministry.2 Feeling a call to preach to young people, Wenger ended his western sojourn and headed to Lancaster, Pennsylvania.3 There he gained a reputation as an excellent preacher, despite his controversial tactic of holding protracted meetings.4 While in the Lancaster area, he wed Mary Hostetter of Millersville on July 1, 1897. She died suddenly of kidney disease a little over a year into their marriage. The money provided by her inheritance financed Wenger’s trip around the world.

Travelling abroad was a luxury afforded to very few at the turn of the twentieth century. In keeping a record of his travels, Wenger likely hoped to educate the Mennonite community still relatively isolated by theology and circumstance. Donald Kraybill observes that Wenger’s account of his travels carried the assumptions and perspectives of a rural American Mennonite. Each identifier—rural, American, and Mennonite—carried the power to shape his narrative.5 Race also shaped Wenger’s account as his voice vacillated between traveller, pastor, and professor. He felt the weight of “the white man’s burden.”6 Though there is a lot to unpack in his language and presuppositions, I want to spend the remainder of this post discussing new information that caught my attention in my re-reading of Six Months in Bible Lands.

The locations where Wenger traveled fascinated. So, I started to track them using Google Maps. You can view his journey here. Whenever possible, I included dates and modes of transportation. Some places—like the Holy Land—weren’t surprising stops on his journey. However, some omissions caught my attention. I wondered, why not visit Mennonite communities in the Russian Empire? In the narrative, Wenger explained that though he desired to travel there, restrictive visa practices and the threat of having papers and possessions taken stifled any appeal to travel into the realm of Tsar Nicholas II.7 Regardless of their denominational background, Wenger desired to draw his readers’ attention to missionaries and their activities around the globe.8 Not only was this interest an outgrowth of his premillennial theology, but he also sought to bring Mennonites into the missionary movement during its rapid expansion at the turn of the twentieth century. These gospel workers also served as Wenger’s most frequent companions during the various legs of his journey.9 He could continually count on them for hospitality and an assessment of a country’s conditions and indigenous peoples.10

The extent of Wenger’s travels meant that he constantly needed to exchange currencies. On a couple of occasions, he commented on money changers or the power of loose change in poor countries.11 While outside of Shanghai he and a travelling companion tried to be generous but also escape the people clamoring for money. He stated,

Just before leaving Shanghai I had gotten about ten cents worth of Chinese money called “cash” which I intended to bring home. It takes sixteen of those coins to make one cent of our money so I had about one hundred and sixty pieces of money in my pockets. Seeing no way of escape from our dilemma for a time I suddenly thought of a plan to draw them away. Running my hand into my pocket and grasping about a hundred of these cheap coins, I arose to my feet and threw them as far behind the carriage as I could.12

This passage and Wenger’s other discussions of money illustrate how he viewed foreign currencies during his travels: with a frugal nonchalance. He had the finances to respond to situations like this one with spontaneous generosity, but he liked a good price and did not appreciate attempts to extort travellers. The story from China also provides useful information about exchange rates and Wenger’s intensions for his remaining “cash.” Despite dispensing some of it, he indeed brought home coins from his travels. They are currently in my parents’ possession. I sorted them by country and marked the chronological range of the coinage.13 They provide another method of mapping Wenger’s journey around the globe. By far the greatest number of coins that returned home with him came from China. Also of note are the coins he acquired in the late Ottoman Empire. It presents a turn-of-the century geopolitical snapshot in the form of currency.

A.D. Wenger not only returned from his travels with money, but he also kept other artifacts to show Mennonite communities when he shared about his journey. Among the items are natural specimens such as whale baleen and pinecones from the cedars of Lebanon. They reveal not only his personality and interests, but practical considerations as well. Attention to flora and fauna meshed with Wenger’s farming background, but also those of his audience.14 He also kept an oil lamp from the Holy Land and scroll with either Chinese or Japanese characters. These items handled transport over long distances well. Traveling with both coins and interesting objects, however, once got him into trouble. On September 26, 1899 he attempted to depart Egypt for India. Customs officials discovered possible contraband. He recalled,

They found a piece of ore and a piece of lava that aroused their suspicion. The lava had a coin of money imbedded in it. The coin had been pressed into the molten lava when I was on Mount Vesuvius and when it cooled and hardened I carried it for a relic. They had been looking for makers of counterfeit money and now they thought they had one of them. The coin and ore pointed that way, they thought; so they held me prisoner and sent for a higher officer.15

Eventually his explanation satisfied the officer who released him and Wenger continued, though delayed, onto India. Wenger’s artifacts, supplemented by his stories, provided his audiences with tangible windows into foreign lands to which they were unlikely to travel.

His experiences abroad, plus his evangelistic ministry, provided Wenger with ample speaking opportunities upon his return to the United States in March 1900. However, contracting polio in October 1900 inhibited his mobility and left him unable to accept any preaching invitations for several months.16 Only a month before getting ill, he married Anna May Lehman after a brief courtship. The family moved to Fentress (Chesapeake), Virginia in 1907, where Wenger continued to farm while preaching and involving himself in building Mennonite education. He served as president of Eastern Mennonite School (University) beginning in 1922, a post he held until his sudden death in 1935.

The money and artifacts were in the possession of my grandfather, Chester, A.D.’s youngest son, until Grandpa’s death in 2020. The family intends to have some of the coins professionally appraised before donating them, and the other objects, to an archive. There other researchers, less close to the subject, may utilize them to examine an American Mennonite’s perspective of the peoples of the world at the turn of the twentieth century.


1. John C. Wenger and Mary W. Kratz, A.D. Wenger (Harrisonburg, VA: Park View Press, 1961), 7. Now known as Bridgewater College, the school is located in Bridgewater, Virginia.

2. Regina Wenger, “Illumination in the West: A.D. Wenger’s Theology of Revival, Dispensationalism, and Mission” (unpublished manuscript, November 7, 2013).

3. John Landis Ruth, The Earth is the Lord’s: A Narrative History of Lancaster Mennonite Conference (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2001), 724–25.

4. Mark R. Wenger, “Ripe Harvest: A. D. Wenger and the Birth of the Revival Movement in Lancaster Conference,” Pennsylvania Mennonite Heritage, April 1981.

5. Donald B. Kraybill, Eastern Mennonite University: A Century of Countercultural Education (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2017), 3-6.

6. A. D. Wenger, Six Months in Bible Lands and Around the World in Fourteen Months (Doylestown, PA: Joseph B. Steiner, 1901), 480, 494-495.

7. A. D. Wenger, Six Months in Bible Lands, 53.

8. A. D. Wenger, Six Months in Bible Lands, 155, 455-483.

9. A. D. Wenger, “Unfulfilled Prophecies,” in Outlines and Notes, ed. John S. Coffman. (Elkhart, IN: Mennonite Publishing Company, 1898), 52–59; Harold S. Bender, “The History of Millenial Theories,” Eastern Mennonite University Historical Library (Harrisonburg, VA), 10; George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 68; See: See for example, A. D. Wenger, Six Months in Bible Lands, 135, 494.

10. A. D. Wenger, Six Months in Bible Lands, 153, 442.

11. See for example, A. D. Wenger, Six Months in Bible Lands, 341-342, 528.

12. A. D. Wenger, Six Months in Bible Lands, 521.

13. A few of the coins in the image are chronological and geographic outliers Wenger’s trip. I suspect that they belonged to his daughter, Rhoda E. Wenger, who served as a missionary in East Africa during the mid-twentieth century.

14. Kraybill, 3-6.

15. A. D. Wenger, Six Months in Bible Lands, 445. The lava, though now absent of the coin, may be seen in the center of the above photograph of the objects Wenger brought back from his journey.

16. Wenger and Kratz, 20.

Disputing Dispossession

After the 1694 expulsion and dispossession of Mennonites from the city of Rheydt, negotiations were both urgent and extensive. (For the narrative of this event, as reported by Rheydt Mennonites themselves, please see my post from May 4, 2021.) The protracted aftermath – hundreds of letters, petitions, and memos sent between Elector Palatine Johann Wilhelm and his commissioners, representatives of the Dutch States General, King William III of England and Stadtholder of the Netherlands, and Holy Roman Emperor Leopold III – ultimately demonstrated a small but significant rhetorical space that had been carved out through years of piecemeal economic toleration.1 Indeed, these high-level epistolary discussions often included appeals for de facto tolerance based on Mennonite economic usefulness or political obedience.

Though decisions happened primarily in these diplomatic debates, other Mennonite groups also took it upon themselves to urge intercession on behalf of the Rheydt community. These appeals often turned upon an argument for a shared Christianity, while at the same time defending against ongoing accusations of heresy – and we’ll look at one such letter today. The collective “baptism-minded” [tauffgesindt] community of the duchy of Cleve had been involved in raising funds to free the imprisoned Rheydt Mennonites in the summer of 1694, and subsequently petitioned their elector, Frederick III of Brandenburg, to plead on the Rheydt community’s behalf. They began a September 1694 letter by declaring “that those, who are of our opinion in the matter of baptism but otherwise faithful to Christian beliefs based on God’s Word” had been “attacked without warning.”2 This affront had occurred despite the community’s adherence to a faith that did “not in any way challenge the common ground of Christian religion.”3 These Mennonites were those for whom “the carrying of weapons among them was held to be prohibited, but that nothing else was sought other than to live a quiet and peaceful life under their Christian authority, to honor themselves by honest dealings, to live in Christian love and unity with their neighbors and to contribute to the common good all that appertains to a faithful subject and citizen,” and that such obvious virtues had led, “not only in England and Holland but also in various provinces of the Holy Roman Empire [to]…freedom of residence, trade and commerce like other Christian inhabitants.”4 They therefore insisted on a common Christianity, but ultimately grounded their appeal for toleration in practical, economic successes in nearby communities and territories.

This mix of theological inoffensiveness and practical economic appeal became even more clear as the Cleve community dealt with the issue of the Peace of Westphalia. The 1648 Peace of Westphalia had redefined the relationship between Christian communities, Christian authority, and the Holy Roman Empire. Calvinism now joined Lutheranism and Catholicism as legitimate official religions, and, importantly, rulers who mandated one were no longer allowed to expel dissenting believers from the other two groups. Mennonites, however, were not included in this expansion of imperial toleration. The Cleve community acknowledged that they had heard others talk about their exclusion from the treaty: “In the meantime, we hear that we, not belonging to the three religions admitted to the Roman Empire, are to be feared as heretics and therefore our property, wherever it may be, is to be confiscated.”5 The community was forced to acknowledge the invectives thrown against them, and the economic penalty that had long attended charges of heresy.6 The Cleve community therefore identified the vulnerability that their extra-Westphalian status accentuated, even as they pushed back against the conflation of non-tolerated and “heretical” groups. They stopped short, however, of making any claims on Westphalian identity: “So it should be noted that we are not looking for any rights dedicated to these three religions in the same statutes, but rather we are asking for nothing more than what we, under your Serene Elector’s Merciful protection live peacefully…so that our mere things, without some fault of our own, may not be taken.”7 This plea was underscored by the accusation that the commerce available even to “heathen, Turks and Jews” had become impossible for Mennonites – a claim that they were owed at least the same, if not more, protection than these other exogenous groups.

The Cleve Mennonites’ insistence on their common Christian status under the Peace of Westphalia is striking, especially when considered next to their still-requisite denial of any connection to the 1534/5 Kingdom of Münster. The community was unsurprisingly explicit in its denunciation, acknowledging “a certain sect of people, which one calls re-baptizers, that also committed varying severe errors, and in particular have tried to bring about turmoil and insurrection [unruhe und Emperung] in ecclesiastical and secular rule […] out of which formed in the city of Münster a terrifying example.”8 These “pernicious heretics” had been dealt with justly according to the laws of the empire, the Cleve community emphasized, with strict punishments doled out to both ringleaders and followers.9 It was moreover well known, they argued, that Menno and all peaceable Anabaptists who followed him had willingly chosen a faith and a life that distinguished themselves from their “unruly” brethren – and exonerated them, in turn, from these lingering accusations of heresy. “[Menno] does not have the slightest community with those of Münster,” they argued, and “instead they have as their first and main maxim that they do not interfere with matters of spiritual or secular rule, and prove themselves to be against all turmoil [unruhe].”10 This letter from the “baptism minded” of the duchy of Cleve was longer than most other petitions in the aftermath of the Rheydt dispossession, perhaps indicating both the gradually increasing space for, and the ongoing character of, negotiations around Anabaptist identity.

Rheydt Mennonites would be portrayed by secular authorities throughout the negotiations as either a heretical threat or an economic boon, or perhaps some mixture of the two. This malleability in their identity had proved essential to their survival thus far, but also inherent to their persecution. Although the targeting of a flourishing religious minority group was far from a unique tactic, in the case of dispossessed Rheydt Mennonites it occasioned another semi-public discussion about who was and was not a Christian – and would eventually develop into a debate over who was and was not a “Protestant.”


1. Achieved through the exchange of protection fees [Schutzgeld] for the issuance of protection letters [Schutzbriefe]. For an example of Schutzgeld payments as recorded in the registers of the city of Emden, please see my post from May 28, 2020.

2. Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz[GSPK], I. HA Rep. 34 Nr. 2112, 6r.

3. GSPK, I. HA Rep. 34 Nr. 2112, 7r.

4. GSPK, I. HA Rep. 34 Nr. 2112, 7v.

5. GSPK, I. HA Rep. 34 Nr. 2112, 8v.

6. The 1532 Constitutio Criminalis Carolina had codified laws concerning heresy, criminality, and property for application within the Holy Roman Empire. For the language of the Carolina, see “Appendix B. CONSITUTIO CRIMINALIS CAROLINA,” in Prosecuting crime in the Renaissance: England, Germany, France, edited and by John H. Langbein (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974), 259-308.

7. GSPK, I. HA Rep. 34 Nr. 2112, 9r.

8. GSPK, I. HA Rep. 34 Nr. 2112, 6v.

9. GSPK, I. HA Rep. 34 Nr. 2112, 7r.

10. GSPK, I. HA Rep. 34 Nr. 2112, 7r.

“Oh, that it had pleased the Lord that I might have brought you up”: Motherhood in the Martyrs’ Mirror

While I was completing my doctoral coursework, I read Steven Ozment’s When Fathers Ruled: Family Life in Reformation Europe, in which he described the magisterial reformers’ exaltation of marriage as an opportunity for women to take up their roles as mothers of the house, a position of “high authority and equal respect” to that of the patriarch.1 While Lyndal Roper and others have criticized Ozment’s rosy portrayal of Reformation-era gender relations, which failed to account for the vast gulf between the rights and privileges enjoyed by husbands and those afforded to wives, there is no doubt that many sixteenth-century Protestant writings emphasized marriage and motherhood as the primary opportunity for Christian faithfulness offered to most women.2 As wives and as mothers, they could obey the Scriptures and bring up their children in the fear of the Lord. Catechizing their own children was the primary mode of spiritual authority available to them.

At the same time, for my Radical Reformation field, I was reading Adam Darlage’s article on sixteenth-century Hutterite women, which emphasized the communal nature of child-rearing in Hutterite colonies. Hutterite mothers were not expected to be their children’s primary spiritual teachers—instead, children were housed separately from their parents as soon as they were weaned and received both spiritual and practical instruction in junior and then senior schools run by the community.3 Reading these works in parallel made me wonder whether sixteenth-century Anabaptists had qualitatively different views of motherhood than their magisterial counterparts. On the one hand, the radical reformers, like the magisterial reformers, rejected celibacy as an ideal and encouraged marriage instead. And the Swiss Brethren and the Mennonites, at least, would not have objected to mothers viewing childrearing and raising their children in the faith as an important spiritual task. But, at the same time, Anabaptist women faced a far more imminent threat of martyrdom than most other Protestant women, and so motherhood was, at best, their second-most pressing spiritual challenge. Their obedience to Christ was more likely to involve hostile interrogations and the threat of death, and to be willing to suffer death or imprisonment for Christ was of necessity to be willing to leave one’s family behind and to entrust the raising of one’s children to someone else.

Anna Jansz giving up her son Isaiah to a Rotterdam baker before her execution. Image source: https://martyrstories.org/anna-jansz/

In another life, I might have written a dissertation on sixteenth-century Anabaptist ideals and realities of motherhood. In the end I didn’t, though I think someone should! But for now, I thought I’d begin by looking at depictions of motherhood in one of the best-known early modern Anabaptist sources: the Martyrs Mirror. The first depiction of motherhood in the Martyrs Mirror that came to my mind was the iconic image of Anna Jansz, who was drowned in Rotterdam in 1539, searching the crowd for someone to raise her son Isaiah. The engraving shows the baker who finally stepped forward and agreed to raise him. He also agreed to give him a letter she had written to him, and the text of the letter became part of the Dutch martyrological tradition that culminated in the Martyrs Mirror.4 Also interspersed throughout the text are letters from five other mothers about to be martyred—Soetgen van den Houte, Maeyken Boosers, Maeyken van Deventer, Maeyken Wens, and Janneken Munsdorp—written to their children, in a last attempt to provide them with spiritual guidance. Soetgen and the three Maeykens left behind children old enough to remember them, and even to write back, so their letters reaffirmed values they had already taught their children over the years. They were deeply conscious that, after years of trying to teach their children, they were now setting the ultimate example by dying for their faith. They hoped that their children, too, would choose to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Christ on the narrow path that led to life. They took great comfort in the children who wrote back to them, confirming their intentions to live faithful lives. Maeyken Boosers even sent her children’s letters back to them, as a reminder of the promises they had made to her.5 The content of the children’s letters, and the faith most of their children adopted as adults, is not known, but the Martyrs’ Mirror does relay the story of Maeyken Wens’ fifteen-year-old son Adriaen, who went to witness her execution along with his youngest brother Hans (whom Maeyken, in the most touching part of her letter, had instructed Adrien to hug now and again on her behalf). He fainted when the pyre was lit, and when he came to only ashes remained. He sifted through them, found the tongue screw her torturers had used, and kept it as a memento. By the time this account was published in the mid-seventeenth century, Maeyken had several surviving grandchildren who had been named in her honor.6

Anna Jansz and Janneken Munsdorp, on the other hand, were both writing to babies so young that their letters would be their children’s only memory of them. Anna instructed Isaiah to take the fear of the Lord as his father and wisdom as his mother, a phrase that surely resonated with others as the letter circulated, since Maeyken van Deventer repeated it to her children 34 years later.7 While the rest of Anna’s letter was mostly filled with apocalyptic language about the evils of the current age and exhortations to live a righteous life, Janneken’s letter gave voice more fully to the anguish of being separated from such a young child and the deep pain she felt at not being able to live long enough to raise her. She and her husband Hans had been married less than a year when they were both apprehended, and he preceded her in death when the authorities discovered she was pregnant, since it was customary to wait until after pregnant women had delivered their children to execute them.8 She recounted how difficult it was to experience pregnancy in prison, knowing this separation was imminent. “Now that I have abided the time, and borne you under my heart with great sorrow for nine months, and given birth to you here in prison, in great pain, they have taken you from me,” she lamented.9 She held on to a sliver of hope, almost despite herself, that God might yet miraculously deliver her and return her to her daughter, but she realized that this was not the most likely outcome. “Oh, that it had pleased the Lord, that I might have brought you up; I should so gladly have done my best with respect to it; but it seems that it is not the Lord’s will.”10 Since she could not bring her daughter up in the faith herself, she hoped for one of two outcomes: “that [God] will keep you, and you grow up in His fear, or that He will take you home in your youth.”11 In a letter to her sister, she confessed to a preference for the latter outcome, so that she might be reunited with her child even sooner.12

Janneken was not the only woman in the Martyrs Mirror to give birth while imprisoned and awaiting death. Five other women gave birth under similar circumstances: Christina Haring, a woman named Lyntgen, Lijsken Dircks, Mary Joris, and the unnamed wife of Adriaen Pan. Christina, Lijsken, and Adriaen’s wife were each executed after giving birth.13 Mary Joris died in childbirth, a fact that the account of her death interpreted as deliverance, and as for Lyntgen, “the pain of delivery so affected her, that she became utterly deranged in her mind; after this she laid for a long time at Amsterdam, in a little house, in which also died.”14 There is no doubt that this experience of pregnancy in the worst possible conditions, with the certain knowledge that only death and separation from their children awaited them, was deeply traumatic for these women.15

Mothers who nursed infants at the time of their arrest were sometimes able to keep the child with them in prison, though the authorities did not hesitate to use the child to punish the mother. The Martyrs’ Mirror recalls the story of Paul Vandruynen and his wife, who had a nine-month-old child with her in prison until the authorities took the child and had it baptized. Another woman,Claudine le Vettre, suffered increasingly harsh interrogations while nursing her infant in prison, and, when these tactics failed the authorities took the child away and gave it to a wet nurse in a last attempt to coerce her into recantation. This attempt was unsuccessful, but it was “the greatest affliction she suffered during her imprisonment.”16 Mothers of slightly older children likewise found separation from their families the hardest loss to contemplate as they faced martyrdom. A woman named Claesken, who left behind two daughters and a son, became indignant when her inquisitor accused her of being confused and insufficiently familiar with the New Testament. “Do you think,” she retorted, “that we run on uncertainties? We are not ignorant of the contents of the New Testament. We forsake our dear children, whom I would not forsake for the whole world, and we stake upon it all that we have. Should we run on uncertainties yet?”17 For Claesken, the fact that she and other Anabaptists were willing to do something as impossible as leaving behind their beloved children was proof that they had been imbued with the power of the Holy Spirit.18 In addition to the mothers I have detailed so far, the Martyrs Mirror mentions three more mothers of minor children who were imprisoned: Hadewijk of Leeuwarden, Levina of Ghent, and Grietgen de Raet. Hadewijk escaped and lived out the rest of her life in Emden, but Levina and Grietgen were both executed.19 Two mothers of Anabaptist ministers, Janneken Walraven and Sijntgen Vercoilgen were also mentioned, but it seems that their sons were already adults by the time they were martyred.20 It is, of course, likely that other women in the Martyrs Mirror left behind children who simply were not mentioned in the accounts of their deaths.

Finally, the Martyrs Mirror recounts five stories of mothers who were martyred alongside one of their children: the wife and son of a man named Arent Jacobs, Neeltgen and Trijntgen of Maastricht, Lijngten Joris and her daughter, who was named either Catharina or Trijntgen, the wife and daughter of a man named Hans de Ruyter, and Anneken Botson and her daughter Janneken. While most of these accounts are cursory, the story of Neeltgen and Trijntgen describes how the two women spoke encouraging words and strengthened each other’s resolve in prison.21 The story of Lijntgen and her daughter, meanwhile, shows how the authorities attempted to pit mother and daughter against each other in order to force a recantation. On the day of their execution, they brought the daughter out of earshot of the mother and tried to tell her that her mother had recanted and she should as well. Their ploy did not work and the two women were executed together.22

The Martyrs’ Mirror, of course, self-selects for women who, however much it broke their hearts to leave their children behind, ultimately felt that martyrdom was a higher calling than motherhood. They entrusted their children to God and went bravely to their deaths. If they wavered, if they even briefly considered recanting in order to return to their families, the sources have not preserved these doubts. Overwhelmingly, it seems, they felt that their greatest task as mothers was to set a good example of faithfulness for their children. If they denied Christ in order to be restored to their children, paradoxically, they would fail at this task. It would be interesting to see what less hagiographic sources reveal about women who recanted, and how many of them cited their children as a reason for doing so.


1 Steven Ozment, When Fathers Ruled: Family Life in Reformation Europe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), 54.

2 See Lyndal Roper, The Holy Household: Women, Religion, and Morals in Reformation Augsburg (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989).

3 Adam Darlage, “Double Honor: Elite Hutterite Women in the Sixteenth Century,” Church History 79:4 (2010): 769.

4 Gerald Mast, “Anna Jansz,” Bearing Witness Stories Project, published 13 November 2015, https://martyrstories.org/anna-jansz/.

5 Thieleman J. Van Braght, The Bloody Theater or Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians, edited and translated by Joseph F. Sohm (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1950), 668.

6 Van Braght, 980-982.

7 Van Braght, 454; 979.

8 Van Braght, 985.

9 Van Braght, 984-985.

10 Van Braght, 985-986.

11 Van Braght, 984.

12 Van Braght, 988.

13 Van Braght, 441; 504; 618.

14 Van Braght, 483; 564.

15 Van Braght, 448.

16 Van Braght, 737.

17 Van Braght, 613.

18 Van Braght, 616.

19 Van Braght, 547; 549; 726.

20 Van Braght, 563; 740.

21 Van Braght, 743.

22 Van Braght, 887.